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When asked to describe his art, Charles Meissner reaches for his pen and notebook paper. “25 years ago,” he scrawls, “I made out with Gail A. Lampkin in her brother Gary’s commitment to Sally Weaver, and quit after I went to Tennessee in 1982 and rode train to segregated state near Expo ’84 in Louisiana.”
That may sound like nonsense, but for the 53-year-old autistic artist, it’s a manifesto. Such communiqués, which Meissner often spells out in the air with an index finger, are about as close as he comes to articulating an aesthetic agenda. Meissner prefers discussing hard facts: names, the exact number of days between events, and people’s ages and dates of birth. “I used to watch the Mickey Mouse Club,” he replies—to a question about his artistic influences. “Walt Disney died in 1966. He was 65 and smoked.”
A lifelong doodler, Meissner works three days a week at Art Enables, a self-described “arts-and-enterprise” program in Southwest’s Millennium Arts Center that provides studio space, materials, and ad-hoc gallery representation to the mentally and developmentally disabled. “We’re not a therapy program,” says Joyce Muis-Lowery, Art Enables’ executive director. “We’d like to be known as a place where people are producing interesting art that people want for the sake of art, not the people behind it.”
After making the trip to Art Enables from his Rockville group home, Meissner might, with a few Sharpie strokes, use his photographic memory to produce a faithful re-creation of the view of suburban D.C. from I-395. “He reads voluminously and has total recall,” Trudy Meissner says of her son, noting that Charles was drawing at 2 years old and taught himself to read at 3. When it comes to his art, however, Meissner tends to veer toward pop culture, beer-drinking, and “hankering” with women.
Take Meissner’s watercolor The Beery Stones: Five crudely drawn musicians play beneath gigantic stage lights; above them hovers a cloud of Meissner’s distinctive handwriting. “The Rolling Stones played in Pittsburgh,” it reads, “which makes a beer I rode my bike from the Monocacy River to west of Brunswick to get 5 years ago.” According to Trudy Meissner, Charles didn’t actually attend the performance, but the mini-autobiography-filtered-through-a-pop-art-event appealed enough to one collector to earn Meissner $80 last January.
“He seems to have watched a lot of TV in the ’70s,” says Scot Hasselman, a Washington attorney. Hasselman has picked up references to Archie Bunker and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in Meissner’s work, which he says he collects for “fun.”
Hasselman isn’t the only collector interested in Meissner’s paintings. More than half of Meissner’s 27 works displayed on the Art Enables Web site have already been sold, usually for around $100 apiece. “Yeah, I’m going to make money five days from now,” he says, quickly losing interest in talk about the bottom line. The price tags on his paintings don’t seem to hold the same importance as the rest of the facts Meissner keeps in his mental catalog.
Still, the money helps; the artist’s only other job is seasonal work in the stockroom of a department store. “[The program] is rewarding to him,” says Paul Meissner, Charles’ father. “It’s good to see him doing something that pulls his own weight.”
Meissner’s carrying more than that: Having produced up to four pictures per day, he has a massive portfolio. While paging through it, Meissner stops on a watercolor of an enormous skyscraper; the scene is clearly Manhattan, but the building’s identity is indiscernible. Is it the World Trade Center? Is this a complex comment on terrorism?
Actually, no and no. “The apartment of the Jeffersons,” reads the text on the picture, “who moved the laundry firm from Queens to downtown NY.”
“It’s on the East Side,” clarifies Meissner. —Justin Moyer